Rivers Gives Women Right to Inherit Family Property 

Even though the Supreme Court had long laid this issue to rest in a landmark judgment, the Rivers State Government last week became the first state in Nigeria to formally give impetus to the judgment by enacting a law giving women the right to partake in the sharing of their family property, Vanessa Obioha writes

In a sweeping victory for women in Rivers State, the government has formally enacted the law giving women the right to partake in the sharing of their family property. This was sequel to the signing into law the Rivers State Prohibition of the Curtailment of Women’s Right to Share in Family Property Law No. 2 of 2022 by Governor Nyesom Wike.  By enacting this law, Rivers is now the first state in Nigeria to achieve this feat.

Wike has always expressed his displeasure at most cultures that stifle growth among women. He made this clearly known at the Executive Chamber of Government House in Port Harcourt, recently. The governor wondered why women were deprived of sharing in the inheritance of their families despite being useful members of society.

He asserted the importance of the law in the development of the state, saying it would enable the people to actualise their potential,  and urged women not to be afraid of any threat from members of their families concerning inheritance. Wike asked them to stand up for their rights and challenge any discrimination against them in court, using the law in order to access their entitlements.

“I don’t know why it’s a taboo,” he began, “because you’re a girl, because you’re a woman, you’re not entitled to inherit what belongs to your father. It is not you who decides whether you will have a girl or you’ll have a boy, it is God. So, put yourself in their shoes today whereby the mercy of God you have three children and they’re all girls and you struggle in life to see what you can keep for your children.

“Tomorrow, one of their uncles comes, and says, ‘my friend, girls don’t inherit their father’s property. With all your efforts in life, somebody comes to discriminate against them, why? We have even found out that women are more useful to us than even men. The day you’re getting old and dying you’ll know that you need more daughters than men. They will leave their husbands’ house and come to take care of you.”

Hitherto, it was almost like an abomination, to say the least, for a typical father in South-east and South-south to bequeath an estate and order a form of inheritances to his female child. This belief is that a girl-child belongs to another family.

Many had attributed the perpetration of the practice to the absence of a legal and policy framework empowering women and granting them explicit right to land in their capacity as citizens with full legal capacity as envisaged by both the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW: 1979); and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol, 2003).

Before the state government formally put the law in black and white, the Supreme Court of Nigeria had since laid this issue to rest in a landmark judgment in most states that have not confined the practice to the dustbin of history.

Delivering judgment in an appeal marked: SC.224/2004 filed by Mrs Lois Chituru Ukeje, wife of the late Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje, and their son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje, against Ms Gladys Ada Ukeje, who is the deceased’s daughter, the apex court in a unanimous decision, voided the age-long Igbo tradition and customary law, which forbade a female child from inheriting her father’s estate.

The court held that the tradition and custom were discriminatory and conflicted with the provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It specifically held that the practice conflicted with Section 42(1) (a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.

Gladys had sued the deceased’s wife and son before the Lagos High Court, claiming to be one of the deceased’s children and sought to be included among those to administer the deceased father’s estate. The trial court found that she was a daughter to the deceased and that she was qualified to benefit from the estate of her father, who died intestate (without a will) in Lagos in 1981.

The Court of Appeal, Lagos, to which Lois and Enyinnaya appealed, upheld the decision of the trial court, prompting them to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court equally held that the Court of Appeal was right to have voided the Igbo native law and custom that disinherit female children.

Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, who read the lead judgment, held that: “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate.

“Consequently the Igbo customary law which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is in breach of Section 42 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution.”

According to Nonso Ayansi, the decision settled beyond all doubts, the fundamental right of a female to participate in the inheritance of her deceased father’s estate. The judgment of the Court, in this case, is of very significant value to Nigerian women because the Nigerian judiciary has experienced a chequered history on this issue of the right of women to inherit their deceased father’s properties, in light of the various customary laws in some parts of the country which prohibits women from participating in such inheritance.

For instance, in 1963, the Supreme Court had in the case of Nezianya & Anor v Okagbue & ors (1963) 1 All NLR 352, held that a widow is a recognised member of her late husband’s family and not a stranger to it, and thus permitted to live in her late husband’s house, but she was not permitted to dispose of the property by giving it out or selling it. This 1963 decision left women handicapped as they were incapable of exercising ownership rights over the properties of their late husbands.

The judgment also formed the basis of support for the old Igbo “Oli-Ekpe” custom which stated that only the eldest surviving male offspring could inherit the property of their late father and prohibited female inheritance because the judgment suggested that ownership of property should be restricted to the patrilineal lineage of the deceased.

ºHowever, in 1997, the Late Niki Tobi (Justice of the Court of Appeal) was bold enough to declare this “Oli-Ekpe” custom as being repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience in the famous case of Mojekwu v Mojekwu (1997) LPELR-13777(CA). In this case, the erudite Niki Tobi JCA took great pains to condemn this custom – and other customary practices – which discriminated against women, for being repulsive to equity in the modern day. This decision was widely hailed as a step in the right direction in the advocacy for women’s rights. Several other decisions of the Court of Appeal delivered between 1997-2003 followed this reasoning and affirmed the rights of women to own, inherit and purchase the property.

The victory gained by the pronouncement of Niki Tobi JCA, in this case, was however short-lived, as he was harshly criticised for the statement he made about the repugnancy of Oli-Ekpe custom by his superiors when the case was further appealed to the Supreme Court in Mojekwu v. Iwuchukwu (2004) LPELR-1903(SC). The Supreme Court believed that Niki Tobi JCA should not have made the statement without calling all relevant parties who engaged in such discriminatory practices against women from explaining their side of the story.  The harsh remark of the Supreme Court in this appeal gave further impetus to the propounders of the Oli-Ekpe and other similar customary practices to persist in their discrimination against women in the sharing of family inheritance.

Hence, the recent position taken by the Supreme Court in Ukeje & Anor v Ukeje (Supra) has therefore provided the much needed clarity on the right of all genders – women inclusive – to participate in the inheritance of their parents’ properties. The effect of this judgment which is binding in all parts of Nigeria is that females have an equal stake to inherit their parent’s properties, as do their male counterparts.

Many are of the view that more states in the country need to emulate the Rivers State government by replicating the law in their respective states in order to do away with all discriminatory practices against women.  

Related Articles